Santa Fe's Native American art market is cultural feast

Aug 21, 2011, 1:07 p.m.

By Zelie Pollon

Santa Fe, New Mexico (Reuters) - Diego Romero, from New Mexico's Cochiti pueblo, spent months building pieces of pottery, melding traditional Native American art with his love of comic books to create a contemporary look at Indian culture.

Standing by his booth on a packed Santa Fe street, his thin, black hair tied in a braid down his back, and wearing shorts and sneakers, he showed a single shallow bowl with golden trim surrounding a painted image of corn dancers. A second bowl, an "historical piece" depicting the hanging of Native Americans by the conquering Spaniards, sold for $6,000 hours after it went on sale at the Santa Fe Indian market.

Romero said his highly sought after artwork chronicles time, history and human nature, integrating images of alcoholism, domestic abuse and exploitation of native culture, depicted like Greek mythical narratives embedded in clay.

"They're narratives of the human condition. We've all been in the bar with a broken heart, or broken down on the highway of life," he said.

The 47-year-old Berkeley-educated artist is one of more than 1,100 Native American artists gathered this weekend in Santa Fe for the largest Native arts market in the world. Produced by the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA), and considered the largest cultural event in the southwest, it brings together artists representing 100 U.S. Federally recognized tribes.

The event easily draws 100,000 visitors to Santa Fe's main square, including collectors, gallery owners, buyers and browsers from around the world, said Mark Trujillo, Indian Tourism program director for New Mexico.

First established in 1922 by the Museum of New Mexico as part of the Santa Fe Fiesta celebration, styles of artwork now include a range of jewelry, pottery, sculpture, baskets, paintings, wooden Kachina dolls, beadwork and more.

The emphasis is on quality and authenticity, said Association officials, citing its mission of bringing "Native arts to the world by inspiring artistic excellence, fostering education, and creating meaningful partnerships."

Generations of artists come together, many of whose family members have been participating for almost 90 years.

Jared Chavez, 28, recently joined his father, a well-known jeweler from San Felipe pueblo who has been selling his work at the Indian Market since 1976. Richard Chavez, 62, calls his son's decision to embrace the trade, "the best thing that has happened in our family."

Richard's bracelets, rings and other jewelry are notable for their unique inclusion of rare gems, collected from gem and mineral shows around the country. Fossilized Mammoth tusk, black and green jade, cut into sleek lines and inlaid into gold or silver backing make for extremely popular wares. Richard sells custom orders primarily to collectors or at the Indian Market once a year.

Jared Chavez has worked with jewelry ever since he was a boy, bored one summer, and eager for something to do. While Jared's designs veer from his father's with more textured surfaces and less inlaid stone, both adhere to sleek lines and quality work. Jared proudly points to his necklace laying nearby, which he made of silver and Botswana agate. It received a large second place red ribbon for best in show.

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